Tuesday, June 28, 2011

MeadWestvaco paper mill to gain new biomass boiler

The Covington paper mill will be energy self-sufficient when the boiler is installed.

The Alleghany Highlands got some serious comfort Monday: $285 million worth.

That's how much Richmond-based MeadWestvaco is investing in a new biomass boiler to provide electricity and steam to power the Covington paper mill that is the region's largest employer and taxpayer.

The boiler will be fueled almost entirely with byproducts of the logging and papermaking processes and will make the world's largest solid bleached sulfate paperboard mill energy self-sufficient, according to a news release from Gov. Bob McDonnell.

The amount of the investment is "major money," as Covington City Manager John Doane put it, but its main impact locally is the security it provides that the mill and its more than 1,000 jobs aren't going anywhere anytime soon.

"I think that's a pretty safe assumption at this point," said Scott Openshaw, spokesman for MeadWestvaco.

The investment is not expected to add any jobs to the economy, local officials said, except during the construction process.

"Is it going to solve all the economic problems? No," Doane said. "But it's not going to eliminate any jobs, either, and it's going stabilize what we've got. ... It has a positive environmental impact, too."

The boiler also will be taxed by Covington for real estate and personal property.

Alleghany County won't see any direct benefit, said County Administrator John Strutner, but, he added, any positive news about the mill's longevity is welcome. "It's a good thing for the region."

In an email, Roy Hall, former president of Covington Paperworks Union Local 675, reacted to the announcement while emphasizing he was not speaking for the union. Current union President Tony Markland could not be reached for comment.

"I feel sure that today's announcement is a welcome sign of MeadWestvaco's renewed confidence in the men and women who work at the Covington mill," Hall wrote. "The boiler should have an overall positive effect on the environment, as well as position Covington to be more efficient and competitive in the marketplace."

McDonnell, in his news release, hailed the plant's conversion from fossil fuels to a renewable energy source: tree bark and other logging byproducts and wastewater residuals from the papermaking process.

The governor approved a $1 million performance-based grant from the Virginia Investment Partnership program, an incentive available to existing Virginia companies, according to the news release.

MeadWestvaco, which employs 2,200 in Virginia, was driven mainly by a desire to make the plant self-sufficient, Openshaw said. The project also cuts operating and maintenance costs.

The new boiler will replace two older fossil fuel units. Openshaw said the company expects to have permits for the project by fall, and have the boiler in use by late 2013. He said no shutdowns are expected during the transition.

Staff writer Duncan Adams contributed to this report.

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